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Academics fail to settle Rhodes freedom debate

Date Released: Thu, 23 May 2013 08:30 +0200

Plans to replace Rhodes University’s apartheid era Academic Freedom Declaration have been shelved after an open debate by leading academics ended in a stalemate.

The Tuesday night debate came a year after an Academic Freedom Committee (AFC) decided to tackle the controversial issue by coming up with a new declaration that “speaks to the realities of contemporary life in South Africa”.

After hours of discussions with Rhodes academia, AFC head and Dean of Humanities, Professor Fred Hendricks, said there was no way everybody was going to agree on the need for the revised declaration. He suggested a discussion document that outlined the different positions and complexities.

The panel featured a diverse mix of academics ranging University of Cape Town deputy dean of Public Law Professor Pierre de Vos to Rhodes University’s distinguished Professor Christopher McQuaid of the Department of Zoology and Entomology, and author of the proposed declaration Professor Pedro Tabensky – who chairs the Allan Gray Centre for Leadership Ethics in the Department of Philosophy.

Hendricks said that many years into democracy, South Africa was still the “most unequal country in the world” and this inequality was mirrored at university level.

He said the AFCs were formed at traditionally English universities in the 1980s to oppose apartheid. The original Rhodes document was written in 1983.

Tabensky admitted although writing the proposed declaration was difficult and included a lot of disagreement by the AFC, it was of crucial importance as it would give the university guidance in tough times.

The academic freedom debate was re-ignited earlier this year when the Minister of Higher Education and Training, Blade Nzimande, announced the establishment of a transformation oversight committee. The committee came hot on the heels of the Higher Education and Training Laws Amendment Bill, passed in December 2012, and extended the minister’s power to intervene in the management and governance of institutions.

According to McQuaid, the proposed revised declaration was based on the outdated 1990 Kampala Declaration on Intellectual Freedom and Social Responsibility.

De Vos questioned the need for a declaration, saying: “The constitution is the highest law in the country and trumps everything, it guarantees academic freedom.”

He said the concept of academic freedom could be misused, before turning devil’s advocate and saying, being told what to do was also dangerous.

According to Tabensky, if there was a choice between keeping the old declaration or having none he would go with the latter. He said everyone carried personal “baggage” that was hard to get rid of and was distorted by history.

Closing the debate, Hendricks said the discussions had been insightful – even though there was no way everybody would agree on what was needed.

He said everyone needed to realise South Africa was a troubled society that still needs fundamental transformation.

“There needs to be far more discussion before any declaration or dedication is adopted,” he said.

“If it is going to be taken forward there’ll be a number of discussion documents.”

Picture by: Michelle Morgan

By DAVID MACGREGOR

Source: Daily Dispatch

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